Mental toughness is a popular topic, but also a fragile one. If there is one thing coaches across the country can agree on, it is that they want their athletes to be mentally tough. I have never heard a coach say they prefer a mentally fragile athlete. If we can all agree that mental toughness is a trait that is consistent with success and winning, then we also need to understand what it is, and what it is not, in order to cultivate it.If we can all agree that mental toughness is a trait consistent with success & winning, then we also need to understand what it is and what it isn’t in order to cultivate it, says @clh_strength. Click To Tweet
Mental toughness is a qualitative trait, which means that you cannot put a number on it to measure it. This is why it is difficult to identify in an objective manner. The first thing we must do to better understand mental toughness is define it. Without a definition, the identification of mental toughness traits comes down to individual interpretation.
The most holistic definition I have found comes from a study in the Journal of Applied Physiology written and conducted by Graham Jones in 2002. The study is titled “What is This Thing Called Mental Toughness? An Investigation of Elite Sport Performers.” Jones defines mental toughness as:
“Having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to: generally, cope better than your opponents with the demands placed on the performer. Specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, and confident, and in control under pressure.” – Jones, 2002
In this study, Jones also conducts surveys to determine the top characteristics of the mentally tough. The results are interesting:
- Unshakable belief or confidence that you have the ability to succeed.
- The ability to believe you will bounce back after setbacks.
- An internalized drive and motivation to succeed.
- Thriving on the pressure from competition.
- Coping skills with competition anxiety.
- Not affected by the performance of others, good or bad.
- Fully focused on task regardless of personal life distractions.
- Remaining psychologically in control following something unexpected.
I recently surveyed Twitter to see how coaches would define mental toughness…
At this point, I believe a large majority of coaches would agree with the points made thus far. So where is the disconnect on this topic? Why is this topic constantly being debated? It all comes down to this question: Can mental toughness be trained or developed?
I say yes, it can.
The fork in the road comes down to the execution: how to develop the mental toughness traits in your athletes. This is where coaches miss the boat. Let’s discuss how you can develop a plan to instill mental toughness in your athletes the right way, and the mechanisms that help create it.
I have been around multiple successful teams at different levels.
- (D2) West Alabama Volleyball Program turnaround from 9-21 to 22-10 and a Regional Appearance
- (D2) West Alabama Football Program 10-2 & Conference Champions
- (D2) West Alabama Baseball 40 wins & one-win away from the World Series
- (D1) McNeese State Football 9-2 season
- (D1) McNeese State Softball 43-18 & Conference Champions
- (HS) Madison Academy 2x 10-win seasons in three years
All of these teams have personnel, leadership, and behaviors in common that contributed to their success. Mentally tough individuals and teams require a unified approach from the entire staff: the sport coaches, strength coaches, and other support staff. If I had to simplify the characteristics of all of those team that had success, I would break it down into four factors:
- Talented players.
- Passionate coaches who can develop.
- Trust and buy-in.
- Willingness to work really hard.
The truth is that mental toughness can be a trait someone already has. At the college level, you can do your best to recruit this trait so that you are not left with as big of a task in developing it. Of course, this can cover up the poor attempts that coaches make in developing mental toughness because they recruit the right players, and they are talented and skilled at their sport.
Coaches have a hard time evaluating their development approach despite their success. It is easy for coaches to believe every piece of the puzzle is correct because the win column is high. This is not always the case. The best coaches I have been around do everything possible to refine their processes regardless of the win/loss column.
For example, the team may have won a state championship, but they had four Division 1 signees, and they were immensely more talented and skilled than the competition. The players were also naturally mentally tough due to a high individual motivation to succeed. The coach may look at that team and their approach to training, and think they’ve made all the right decisions to win and foster mental toughness, resilience, discipline, etc. This may not all be true. So, repeating that same approach with a different team may not work.
Let’s look at some common mistakes that coaches make when attempting to develop a mentally tough athlete and team.
Mistake #1: Mindless Conditioning
Mental toughness is not a simple 2+2=4 transaction. It cannot be seen as a simple equation of “hard things = tougher.” This shows a lack of critical thinking.
Blanket training programs will not yield the result you are looking for. Your athletes are not all exactly the same, so you should not approach their training in the same exact way.
Does this mean we should avoid doing hard things? Absolutely not. But we should pick and choose which hard things we want to invest our time and energy in and make sure they have transference to the task we want athletes to be tough in. Let me give you examples of low and high transference training:
Low Transference Example #1 – Baseball
When I was a college baseball player, we were required to pass a conditioning test every year when we came back from summer break. The conditioning test was to run a 1.5 mile in under 10 minutes (6:35ish-mile pace). If you did not complete this test, you had to run it every Wednesday morning in the fall at 6:00 a.m. until you passed.
This was the first event we completed as a new team. This expectation can play negatively on the leadership dynamic immediately. There is a problem with this test. Not just because I was not good at it, but because the transference was very low. Let me explain:
What good is a test when your best player can’t pass it and your worst player passes without preparation?What good is a test when your best player can’t pass it and your worst player passes without preparation? asks @clh_strength. Click To Tweet
We had guys who were naturally good distance runners. They could train all summer for other things that transferred to the game of baseball (skill development, power development, etc.). They would show up, knock out the 1.5 mile, and go about their day. On the outside, they appeared prepared and mentally tough to get through a task that was not easy to complete.
We also had guys who were a little bit bigger and more powerful than the others, but who were not skilled endurance runners. They would not pass the test and would be looked upon as unprepared and not mentally tough enough to complete the task. It was practically impossible for some of our biggest guys to pass this test. My junior year, we had a first baseman who set the conference record for home runs, but he never came within four minutes of passing the 1.5-mile test. These guys would just get through it, and their effort levels were not high.
Then you had the middle of the road guys like me. During the summer, it would take all 10-12 weeks of meticulous training just to give me a chance to pass that test. It took up a lot of my energy and focus and took away from the qualities and skills that would make me a better pitcher. I only passed the test once in four years, but I was the Friday night starter for three straight years. Can you see how this can be counterintuitive?
As a coach, you need to ask yourself if the task you are asking your athletes to complete will contribute to your team’s leadership dynamic and increase their ability to complete tasks in the game itself. If your test does not have transference to the ultimate goal of the team, then you need to find a new test.If your test does not have transference to the ultimate goal of the team, then you need to find a new test, says @clh_strength. Click To Tweet
Low Transference Example #2 – Football
Where I went to high school, football was king. The community counted on us to play at a high level every Friday night. We had an expectation to fulfill, both as players and from our coaches.
Our summer training sessions were tough. We would lift in the mornings and then go complete skill work and 7-on-7 right afterward. For the months of June and July, the plan made the most sense. Train hard in the weight room and simply practicing for 10 weeks will have us in shape.
Here is where things went wrong. During fall camp (two weeks for a high school team), when we were finally in pads, we would run multiple gassers after practice to “get into shape.” I personally know that many of us would save as much energy as possible to get through those gasser sessions. It took away from our focus on the actual practice. Especially for those who were not in great cardiovascular shape, aka ME.
The problem with this approach was that in the weeks directly before the season, we wasted energy on “getting into shape,” and we watered down practice reps. Practice itself should be planned to do that for you. Players save energy in practice for something at the end that will not help them win more games nearly as much as practice will. I understand, some coaches don’t know what they don’t know, but that is the entire point. Coaches need to be educated on these topics.
High Transference Example #1 – Football
I learned the most as a coach during my time spent at the University of West Alabama. Head Strength & Conditioning Coach Joseph Boyd is still one of my biggest mentors to this day. Due to the unique situation of Division 2 football, players could not stay during the summer. We would have our entire team back four weeks before fall camp started. In a nutshell, it was Coach Boyd’s job to make sure our guys had the capacity to practice well.
Coach Boyd would send home conditioning templates for the guys to do at home. They were progressive, and the program led up to the four weeks of being on campus before camp started. When the guys showed up on campus, we would complete a 20 half-gasser test. This test allowed Coach Boyd to see where the guys stood capacity-wise.
Why 20 half-gassers? This equates to about 1.2 miles total. These are similar mileages to what the majority of our skill and mid-skill players would approach in practice. Linemen had a shorter goal to reach. The test had adequate rest times, and we would chart how far the players made it into the test before they began to drop off. The data from this test allowed Coach Boyd to plan his next four weeks precisely before he handed the guys over to the head coach for fall camp.
This example has high transference. Is the test tough? Absolutely. But it is tailored to the capacity the players will be expected to have at practice and eventually in games.
High Transference Example #2 – High School Football
Every Friday morning during our off-season training, we complete team lunges in our own stadium. We lock arm-in-arm and ask our players to be in unison every single step. The goal is to complete 100 yards of team lunges to finish out the week. We encourage communication, adjustments, and accountability.
The guys understand that someone will get tired before the rest do. It is their opportunity to lift him up. The guys also understand that it is not always going to look perfect, but they must make adjustments along the way in order to get the job done. We do this on our home field every Friday morning to finish our week, and it paints a beautiful picture of what it takes to win as a team.
We don’t mention how hard it is. We just ask that they work together to complete the task. Week to week, we want to improve in our efficiency. We throw curveballs at them to adjust accordingly, similar to a bad call made by an official that you cannot control.
Mistake #2: Mishandling Punishment
Coaches believe in standards. There is not a single coach that does not believe that standards and expectations are important in their organization. The method of punishing those who miss the mark is where coaches miss the boat. There are multiple ways to approach accountability. The two most popular are:
- Loss of playing time.
- Physical punishment.
There are coaches who believe that physical punishment and exercise should not be used as punishment, as it dulls the athlete’s motivation when it is time to complete physical training. Other coaches believe that doing something really hard as a consequence of a bad decision will deter the athlete from making that same decision again. Both of these trains of thought can be appropriate. The magic question is for what? How do we choose which is most appropriate?Be as specific as possible for mistakes that are tactical and consistent as possible for those that are non-tactical, says @clh_strength. Click To Tweet
Be as specific as possible for mistakes that are tactical and consistent as possible for those that are non-tactical.
- Missed in-game free throws. Practice more free throws. Coach it up.
- Fail to get the bunt down. Practice more bunting. Coach it up.
- Missed assignment on defense. Go over mistakes thoroughly.
- Poor effort given on a play. Take away reps/playing time.
- Showing up late to training/practice. Universal punishment to pay for one-time occurrence. Pattern results in harder punishment + talk about solving the issue.
- Having a poor attitude/uncoachable. Take away reps/playing time.
Limitation: This gets to be really tough on a coach when your best player takes advantage of the knowledge that there is no one else skilled enough to replace them. This situation is unique and must be approached based on the coach’s knowledge and relationship with the player and understanding the current dynamic of the team. No advice can help you in this area, but you must make a plan to address it if you see it being a problem.
Mental Toughness Blueprint: Effective Solutions
Mental toughness is not an event. It is not a cog in the training program. It is not a section of the book that you pull out and check off your list. Mental toughness is the by-product and summation of every decision made in the entire organization. It is not just a “part” of the program—it is the entire program.Mental toughness is the by-product and summation of every decision made in the entire organization. It is not just a ‘part’ of the program—it’s the entire program, says @clh_strength. Click To Tweet
As I have heard multiple successful coaches say, tough athletes are bred from being smothered with standards and having a coach to guide them along the way. Nowhere to hide. No way to escape. I have 10 points that will get you headed in the right direction:
1. Know Your Players – Invest in Their Life and Build Trust
The best coaches get to know their players on an intimate level. Where do they come from? Who are their parents? What is their history? What drives them? What interests them?
When coaches have a full understanding of the psyche of each player, the picture becomes clear of how the machine is going to operate. When coaches invest in their players, it creates trust. Without trust, mental toughness will never be something that can be developed.
A common goal brings people together. When players understand that the coach’s goal is the same as the player’s goal, then ultimate trust can be achieved. The difficult part is understanding that the coach wants to win, and a lot of players want to win, but they also want to feel important. Coaches who make every role important have larger buy-in with their teams.
2. Have a High ROI on Time and Energy Investments
Coaches must be aware of where they invest their time and energy, and the return they get on those investments. One-rep maxes are a great example of this. Some coaches place a large stake in the 1RM and spend a lot of time on it. Can you determine how those 1RMs help your team win games? Is it worth the energy cost? What about the trade-offs?
You can apply these questions to everything, especially practice planning. Set yourself up to always ask yourself if the time and energy being invested is worth it and adjust along the way. It is a difficult moving target, but a necessary one.
3. Establish Standards – Be Unapologetically Demanding
Standards and expectations need to be set in order to orchestrate player growth. We do not want to be content with where we are, so we must challenge ourselves on where we want to go. Whether you are a team that has not made the playoffs in 10 years or the team that continues to win a high number of games but can’t get over the hump for a championship, taking the next step is relative. Standards must be something greater than a poster on the wall.
4. No Unclear Standards – When Mistakes Happen, Talk About Them
Coaches preach standards and may put them on a fancy graphic, but if they are vague, they will not be consistently met. For example, telling a team or a player that they need to get tougher, without explaining the context in which they are falling short, is a waste of breath. Players have responsibility in this, too. I have seen many players come to the sideline and ask, “Man, what did I do wrong?” Often, this is a cop-out for not taking responsibility.
Ignorance is the most common excuse I have heard from players. But sometimes, the player is not sure what went wrong. In that instance, players need to feel comfortable coming to coaches for clarity when things are not clear. This communication line is vital.
5. Uphold Standards Consistently – Love Them Harder Through It
Standards get lost in the weeds when they are not consistently upheld. In practice, if the standard is not being met, you need to address it immediately. Whether that is redoing a rep or having a player sit out momentarily because the effort level is not up to par for the day, action needs to be taken.An open, honest conversation can be a powerful mental toughness tool, says @clh_strength. Click To Tweet
Players need to know when they are not meeting the standard, and the communication needs to be open to help athletes meet that standard. If the standard is unrealistic, coaches will know as soon as they attempt to uphold it consistently. An open, honest conversation can be a powerful mental toughness tool. If players have agreed they want to be their best, and their actions do not reflect that, it needs to be communicated, often with consequence. The best consequence for an athlete is that they don’t get to participate until their actions reflect the goals of the team.
When players are upholding the standard, they also need to know that! Players get confused when communication is not present. This is the mantra “Coach them hard, love them harder” in action. Praise when done right, converse when done wrong. This cycle should happen over and over and over and over in every aspect of the program.
6. Be Intentional with Your Language – Promote Unity, Not Divisiveness
Language is where many coaches struggle with their communication. How many times have you heard a coach call a kid a piece of crap? Or tell them that they are a loser in a heated moment? I have seen multiple players take on this piece of advice: “Hear the message, not the tone.” Let me ask you this…does that also work in your marriage? Does that work anywhere else in life? That is such a poor excuse for terrible communication skills.
Your language needs to promote unity, not divisiveness. Coaching a player hard is not an excuse to make them feel unwanted or not a part of the team. Hard coaching needs to challenge players to get with the program, because we need them! Great cultures have players who uphold the standard because they will do anything to not let the team down. When addressing shortcomings, be intentional with your language.
7. Leave No Stone Unturned – Smother with Standards
We can’t just focus on practice performance and let everything else go. Athletes need to be smothered with standards in class, the community, the weight room, the film room, and the practice field/court. There must be a standard across the board, and coaches must have systems in place to hold players accountable.
Making players run more with zero substance will destroy trust. Give them resources and tools to be successful. Will the consequences have some physical punishment? Maybe. But the root of the problem must be addressed concurrently.
8. Your Players Are Not Stupid – Be Honest with Them
Players see through cliché bull crap. They will know when your standards are hollow and your words mean nothing. They may not say anything, but they know the difference. They see your actions every single day. Your words will not mean much if your actions are not in line with what you preach. Mental toughness starts with us as coaches. Players don’t buy into catchy phrases; they buy into people.Mental toughness starts with us as coaches. Players don’t buy into catchy phrases; they buy into people, says @clh_strength. Click To Tweet
9. Push Your Athletes – They Need to Know Their Edge
You will never know what a 10/10 feels like until you take it to 11. Resiliency is trained through repeated perseverance. This happens in the weight room. This happens at practice. This does not excuse poor programming or practice planning. The return on investment of energy must be high, and transference must be apparent.
Doing “death by squats” is not going to cut it. The kid who is your best squatter, but a bad player, will appear as “tough,” since toughness is revealed in specific tasks. What does this look like in the weight room? Tough sets. Not skipping reps. Details being met. Seeing effort on every rep asked. Turning in your sheet. Keeping your workstation neat as you leave. These are the qualities that will transfer to practice, not “death by squats.”
Mindless conditioning at the end of practice doesn’t cultivate this. Coaching really hard on reps that matter in practice does.
10. Be a Professional Failure
Kids are deathly afraid to fail. They do not want to be embarrassed and will go to great lengths to avoid it. Social media and the Internet allow for word to spread extra fast. Our head basketball coach said it best, “Our kids are most afraid of two things: getting dunked on or getting their shot blocked, and then posted on social media.”
Players today are more concerned with embarrassment than losing. Failing only hurts when an investment is made. When there is skin in the game, falling short hurts. Can you give your athletes a reason to invest and put skin in the game? Can you show them that failure is not as scary as it seems, but just a part of the growth process? If you can, you will see athletes attempt to run through brick walls for you and their teammates.
The Sum of Everything
Mental toughness is a characteristic trait that can happen organically or be manifested. It must be done with precision and consistency. Mental toughness is not an event, but a summation and result of all events that occur in the program.
Keep in mind that toughness is task specific, and that we can all look weak in certain situations. Conversations can be your most powerful tool if you use them properly. Always remember that players do not buy into programs, they buy into people.
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